With Obama’s election, nonprofits aim for a seat at the table

November 5, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

Steve Gunderson has a prediction: Someone from the foundation world will be in Barack Obama’s administration. “There are an awful of my colleagues who have been in government before who are interested in returning,” said Gunderson, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations (CoF).

In the wake of Obama’s victory Tuesday night, Gunderson said that he also anticipates many issues that affect the sector to be part of any economic stimulus or tax package within the first 100 days, from incentives to grow philanthropy, like the IRA charitable rollover or the estate tax, to recognizing that the public sector needs more resources. “There will be a wide variety of diverse issues important to philanthropy that will be part of these discussions,” he said.

Along with recapturing the White House for the first time in eight years, Democrats increased their slim majority in the Senate by picking up at least five seats and bolstered their advantage in the House.

Shirley Sagawa, co-author of The Charismatic Organization: Eight Ways to Grow a Nonprofit and former managing director at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), expects a new administration could sign the Serve America Act within its first 100 days. The legislation can pass quickly, she said, given that it has built-in bipartisan support, is “fairly low cost in the early years,” and already is written in the House and Senate. The measure was announced at the ServiceNation Summit in September and would expand national public service.

“Nonprofits need to be at the table exercising advocacy muscle. It’s time to step up and say it’s gone on too long,” Sagawa said.

The idea that nonprofits have a seat at the table during public policy discussions was a theme echoed throughout the sector during post-election interviews today. “I think we’ll see in the service area, and in a more sort of bottom-up approach, with more emphasis on capacity building and advocacy for nonprofits,” said Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

Ottinger also expects some reforms to make it easier and more acceptable for nonprofits to engage in the public policy process. “I think it will be necessary for nonprofits to stick together during the budget crisis, and be part of the solution, and not be passive recipients, but active with government and business in making those decisions,” he said.

Tim Delaney, executive director of the National Council of Nonprofits in Washington, D.C., called it an “awakening” that’s been occurring in the nonprofit sector the last few years. “It’s incredibly important that nonprofits be at the policy table because many are on the front lines of so many social issues that America is going through. A big cry in this election was change,” Delaney said. “Everyone saw it. That’s what people were calling for yesterday, loud and clear. We in the nonprofit sector have to hear that same call for change that many of us have been calling for for sometime, to get active and engaged,” he said.

Gunderson agreed that there will be an increased focus on partnerships between public, private and philanthropic sectors, but was unsure it would result in formalizing a structure within government.

Any hopes that nonprofits could expect more money from a Democratic administration, however, were tempered by William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“In terms of increased resources, I’m sure that every nonprofit is drawing up its laundry list that didn’t get done over the last eight years, confident they’ll get it done now. Obviously, there’s a lot of inflated hopes out there, and they’re going to come crashing down,” said Schambra. “For all the hopes and dreams of those nonprofits, as they dust off their wish list, most of them I’m afraid are going to be disappointed.”

Schambra said Obama’s appointments will signal what kind of administration it will be and whether he turns out to be the early Saul Alinsky, who engaged people to solve immediate problems in their neighborhoods, or the late Saul Alinsky, who was more interested in mass movements and grand systematic change. Alinsky is considered the founder of modern community organizing.

“We could be in for a time of great civic flourishing and engagement,” if it’s the early Alinsky, he said. Otherwise, it might just mean “more funding for radical groups that aren’t really interested in solving problems, but dramatic radical change,” he said.

One of the most favorable signs for Schambra, however, is that Obama has promised to keep the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “The fact is, that was a very contentious issue on the left, this notion of funding faith-based organizations,” he said. The faith-based office was created during President Bush’s first term and overcame litigation early on.

Schambra anticipates there might be some push on the issue of foundation diversity in the next Congressional session. Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) has been pressing foundations to think harder about where they direct their dollars and be more self-conscious about who serves on their boards. “It could very well be, in light of tough economic times, Congress may follow Becerra’s lead,” Schambra said, maybe even “squeezing out a mandate” as foundations may appear to be “a promising place to find more money for people who are hit by the economy. That could be pretty devastating for the future of private philanthropy if indeed people get the idea that Congress can steer private money wherever they want.”

Gunderson, a former congressman, said the likelihood that government will be more active is just a given, with one party controlling both houses and the administration. He expected the issue of diversity in the nonprofit sector to continue to be raised at the state and national level, calling it inevitable but expecting a different context than in the past. “We’re dealing with a new government but also a new fiscal environment for philanthropy. As a result of that, I think some of the expectations and directives on sector are going to be different,” he said, even than what had been discussed as recently as a few months ago.

Robert Egger, founder of the DC Central Kitchen and the Nonprofit Congress, has been trying for the last several years to get the attention of elected officials to include the nonprofit sector. In August, the V3 Campaign was launched to document candidates’ positions on the nonprofit sector.

“This was the first time I’ve ever heard nonprofits even remotely mentioned…there was some sense of open-mindedness about nonprofits,” he said. “We’ve definitely crossed a rubicon of sorts,” Egger said. “We can’t go back to a semi-passive role on the sidelines waiting for decisions to be made for us. I hope Washington and other state capitals understand what nonprofits represent economically,” he said.

While hundreds of campaigns may have ended this week, “we’re just getting started,” said Egger. “I don’t begrudge candidates for not understanding what we’re asking. By the blank stares we got, it was a foreign concept,” he said.

More than 500 people in 35 states asked questions through the V3 Campaign and received 24 responses from candidates, about a 5 percent response rate. Some 5,200 people logged onto the site, which launched on Martin Luther King Day in January, the “Ask the Candidates” portion adding in August. What’s interesting, Egger said, is the areas where no responses were received, like Louisiana – “where nonprofits all but rebuilt that state” – despite 40 people asking. The V3 campaign is expected to continue next year, focusing on all the races, including those for governor of Virginia and mayor of Los Angeles.

While some success could be measured by responses, Egger said the campaign also “illuminated the nonprofit sector and how foreign it is for candidates to understand what we’re asking. And frankly how little we’re regarded.” Egger hopes it’s a “clarion call” for the sector, adding that, even candidates in the tightest races didn’t think it was worth responding to questions about how they view the sector.

“I’m not interested in people pandering to us or promising us stuff, it’s just educational. People who volunteer and give money to nonprofits have a real choice in candidates. I’m not interested in candidates just saying ‘I heart nonprofits.’ It’s a fundamental understanding of our role and what we do,” Egger said.